When you think of romance, you probably think Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights—or anything by Nicholas Sparks if you’re into more modern fare. These famous love stories, spread across centuries, have one thing in common: they’re all about heterosexual couples. Matthew Griffin’s debut novel, Hide, is helping change that narrative with a rich and tender tale of a life-long love between two men. The novel isn’t out till February 16th, but this week Electric Literature gives us a first taste with a stand-alone excerpt titled “The First Summer,” which is a powerful story all by itself.
Wendell and Frank first met when Frank, freshly home from World War II, walked into Wendell’s taxidermy shop in a small North Carolina town. Needless to say, it wasn’t an era or a place that accepted two men in love, and Frank and Wendell retreated to a sparsely populated island to spend their first summer together, away from prying eyes.
We went to the beach together the end of that first summer, stayed in a little two-room shack with plywood walls so flimsy the sea breeze would have knocked them down on top of us if there weren’t so many gaps between the boards for it to slip through instead of strain against. We slept for the first time in the same bed, so narrow he crushed me against the wall and had to peel his chest from my sweaty back just to roll over, but I rested better than I had in years.
“First Summer” is full of joy and tenderness and awe at newfound love. The fishing shack has the feeling of a magic bubble, and Griffin’s lush prose lends an aura of a dream. In a lesser writer’s hands, this could lean too sentimental, too purple, but in Griffin’s, a hint of danger lurks in every description, and the enchanted sanctuary is complicated by the very fact that it’s a sanctuary. It’s a safe space in a world that would harm them. It’s a hideaway. Because Wendell and Frank are forced to hide. The awareness of this permeates every beautiful moment:
He walked dripping out of the water. It poured off him in streams that ran back into the ocean, where they gave up their edges and shape and became again indistinguishable, as if they’d never pressed against him. Sea foam clung to his ribs and knees before dissolving in the wind. He sat heavily beside me in the sand and kissed me, his wet lips salty, the hair on his legs burning gold in the sun. Its light fell full and hard down on him, burned away another layer of his skin.
What would otherwise be a nice story of a young couple’s beach vacation is rendered complicated and perilous by the mere gender of the couple, and that heartbreaking truth is what gives the story its tension. That’s what makes a novel like Hide such an important story to tell, a story of great love forced into hiding and the costs and consequences of a life in seclusion. The fact that this seems revolutionary at all is also, of course, frustrating. Author Stuart Nadler (The Book of Life, Wise Men), in his introduction to the excerpt, says it best:
It is exhausting to have to write that fiction like this should not feel as brave and important and transgressive as Matthew Griffin’s Hide feels, and that an honest, emotionally complicated, lushly beautiful depiction of two men who have spent their life together, and who are about to encounter death, should not feel so refreshing and so necessary. But the times, sadly, do not always dictate our literature.
And “The First Summer” is a reminder that the times have never truly dictated love, no matter how hard they try. Because although the intolerance of the times does hang darkly over the story, it is mostly a story of the persistence of love. Above all else, it’s a love story.